Meiji Constitution

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上諭 - "The Emperor's words"
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上諭 - "The Emperor's words"
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御名御璽 - "Imperial Signature and Seal"
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本文 - text

The Constitution of the Empire of Japan(大日本帝國憲法), more commonly known as the Imperial or Meiji Constitution, was the fundamental law of the Empire of Japan from 1889 until 1947. Enacted as part of the Meiji Renewal, it provided for a form of constitutional monarchy based on the Prussian model in which the Emperor of Japan was an active ruler and wielded considerable political power, but shared this with an elected diet. In 1947, following Japan's defeat and occupation at the end of the Second World War, the Meiji Constitution was replaced by a new document, called simply the 'Constitution of Japan', which attempted to replace the imperial system with a form of Western-style liberal democracy.


Drafting and enactment

Prior to the adoption of the Meiji Constitution Japan had no written constitution and, in theory at least, the emperor governed as an absolute monarch. The new constitution was adopted as part of the Meiji Renewal, a period of sweeping political and social reform aimed at modernising Japan so that she might reach a par with the nations of the Western world. Rejecting the British constitution as a model, influential conservatives such as Iwakura Tomomi borrowed heavily from the Prussian constitution in drafting a fundamental law. Ito Hirobumi, a Choshu native long involved in government affairs, was charged with drafting Japan's constitution and announced in 1881 that the task would be finished within a decade. The following year he led a Constitutional Study Mission abroad, spending most of his time in Germany. He rejected the United States Constitution as "too liberal" and the British system for being too unwieldy and granting too much power to parliament. The French and Spanish models were rejected as tending toward despotism. Ito was put in charge of the new Bureau for Investigation of Constitutional Systems in 1884, and the Council of State was replaced in 1885 with a cabinet headed by Ito as prime minister. The positions of Chancellor, Minister of the Left, and Minister of the Right, which had existed since the seventh century as advisory positions to the emperor, were all abolished. In their place, the Privy Council was established in 1888 to evaluate the forthcoming constitution and to advise the emperor.

The new constitution was not ultimately adopted by an elected assembly, or submitted to a plebiscite, but simply enacted by the emperor himself. It was adopted on 11 February, 1889 but came into effect on 29 November, 1890. The first Imperial Diet, a new representative assembly based on the Prussian diet, convened on the same day as the constitution came into force. The structure of the Diet showed both Prussian and British influences, most notably in the inclusion of the House of Peers (which resembled the Prussian Herrenhaus and the British House of Lords) and of the Speech from the Throne. The second chapter of the constitution, in detailing the rights of citizens, bore a resemblance to similar articles in both European and North American constitutions of the day.

Main provisions


The Meiji Constitution consists of 76 articles in seven chapters, together amounting to around 2,500 words. It is also usually reproduced with its Preamble, the Imperial Oath Sworn in the Sanctuary in the Imperial Palace, and the Imperial Rescript on the Promulgation of the Constitution, which together come to nearly another 1,000 words. The seven chapters are:

  • I. The Emperor (1-17)
  • II. Rights and Duties of Subjects (18-32)
  • III. The Imperial Diet (33-54)
  • IV. The Ministers of State and the Privy Council (55-56)
  • V. The Judicature (57-61)
  • VI. Finance (62-72)
  • VII. Supplementary Rules (73-76)

Emperor sovereignty

Unlike its modern successor, the Meiji Constitution was founded on the principle that sovereignty resided in the emperor, by virtue of his divine ancestry "unbroken for ages eternal", rather than the ordinary people. Article 4 states that the "Emperor is the head of the Empire, combining in Himself the rights of sovereignty". The emperor, nominally at least, united within himself all three branches of government. Under the constitution he wielded both executive and legislative power, albeit that the latter was subject to the "consent of the Imperial Diet", and under Article 57 justice was administered by the courts "in the name of the Emperor".

Separate provisions of the constitution contradict one another as to whether it is the emperor or the constitution that is to be supreme. While Article 4 binds the emperor to exercise his powers "according to the provisions of the present Constitution", Article 3 declares him to be "sacred and inviolable", a formula which was construed by hard-line monarchists to mean that he retained the right to overthrow the constitution, or to violate its provisions.

Rights and Duties of Subjects

  • Duties: The constitution asserts the duty of Japanese subjects to uphold the constitution (preamble), pay taxes (Article 21) and serve in the armed forces if conscripted (Article 20).
  • Qualified rights: The constitution provides for a number of rights that subjects may enjoy only where the law does not provide otherwise. These included the right to:
    • Freedom of movement (Article 22).
    • Not have ones house searched or entered (Article 25).
    • Privacy of correspondance (Article 26).
    • Private property (Article 27).
    • Freedom of speech, assembly and association (Article 29).
  • Less conditional rights
    • Right to "be appointed to civil or military or any other public offices equally" (Article 19).
    • 'Procedural' due process (Article 23).
    • Right to trial before a judge (Article 24).
    • Freedom of religion (Guaranteed by Article 28 "within limits not prejudicial to peace and order, and not antagonistic to their duties as subjects").
    • Right to petition government (Article 30).

Organs of government

Under the constitution the Emperor of Japan had the right to exercise executive authority and to appoint and dismiss all civil officers. Legislative authority was shared with the Diet and both the emperor and the Diet have to agree in order for a measure to become law. However the emperor could conclude treaties and declare war without the Diet's consent. Also, although the Diet had a veto over the budget, if the emperor and the legislature could not agree on a budget then the previous year's budget would continue in force. The constitution provided for a cabinet consisting of Ministers of State who answered to the emperor rather than the Diet. Under its terms the role of ministers was merely to advise the emperor, but in practice they were granted considerable political power. The constitution granted the state broad authority to establish a judicial system by law. Despite the powerful position given to the emperor by the constitution, in practice the Genro, an inner circle of advisors to the emperor not mentioned in the constitution, wielded considerable influence.


Amendments to the constitution were provided for by Article 73. This stipulated that to become law a proposed amendment had first to be submitted to the Diet by the emperor, by means of an imperial order or rescript. To be approved by the Diet an amendment had to be adopted in both chambers by a two-thirds majority of the total number of members of each (rather than merely two-thirds of the total number of votes cast). Once it had been approved by the Diet an amendment was finally promulgated into law by the emperor, who had an absolute right of veto. No amendment to the constitution was permitted during the time of a regency. Despite these provisions no amendments were made to the imperial constitution from the time it was adopted until its demise in 1947. When the Meiji Constitution was replaced, in order to ensure legal continuity, its successor was adopted in the form of a constitutional amendment, in full compliance with the terms of Article 73.

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